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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

20 Questions with Meredith Lasher

Actor, designer, producer, musician - to thrive in the performing arts industry, one must wear many hats, hold certain positions, and stay on top of their game in every field. Meredith Lasher is one case study that deserves recognition. Lasher attended Miami-Dade College and earned a BA at Florida International University. She has performed in over 100 shows and designs costumes for three theatres: Mosaic Theatre in Plantation, and the Shores and City theatres in Miami.

Lasher is also the president of the Women's Theatre Project, where she just finished a critically-acclaimed world premiere run of Carolyn Gage's The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women, and is Producing Director of Trap Door Theatre. Right now, Lasher holds residency at Miami-Dade College as their costume designer and theatre production coordinator, and she is about to open David Mamet's Boston Marriage there, her sixth producing stint with Trap Door.

In a recent conversation, I asked Meredith about the current state of the arts, her take on music and theater and other things on her agenda:

Due to the current state of the arts in Florida, what needs to be done to keep theatre thriving in this region?

I believe we really need to get political. Theatre people aren't always into the political scene, but it's the only way to make change happen. We desperately need to get art, music and theatre back into the elementary and secondary school programs.

What are the differences between your missions at the Women's Theatre Project and the Trap Door Theatre?

The Women's Theatre Project is about creating work that is by women, about women, but for everyone. The Trap Door Theatre started out with students from New World School of the Arts who wanted to create their own work during the summer when school was out. It's grown into a cooperative theatre company that does edgy, raw work with talented young artists who don't necessarily have the exposure they should have in the South Florida theatre community

Boston Marriage - what intrigued you about this play?

Stuart Meltzer chooses the plays he wants to direct. He's an avid reader and he finds these great gems with fantastic, inspiring writing. There's a certain "language" that appeals to his ear which is evident from the past productions we've tackled. Stuart generally finds a play, gives me a copy to read, and then we decide whether or not it's viable for the elements that are at hand (performance space, talent, etc.).

It consists of three female characters - why use it for this company and not for WTP?

It's an interesting piece, but totally wrong for The Women's Theatre Project. As I mentioned, that company is presently about producing work that is exclusively by women playwrights.

There are two other local companies mounting works of David Mamet, and one other just finished; what does he mean to you as a writer?

This is a great question to ask Stuart. I love the writing of Mamet. I don't necessarily agree with his views on women as evidenced in his characters, but he's got some intriguing ideas in his plays. I love that I've seen Oleanna directed well and had a huge debate at a restaurant about the play.

Did you ever expect to come back to Miami-Dade as an instructor?

The thought never entered my mind when I was in school here. It's been a very comfortable transition for me because this is my alma mater and I love the students. They are challenging because their lives are so complicated. I've got young people who are working two jobs, going to school full time, signing their paychecks over to their parents to support their families, and trying to get into the next mainstage production.

Mike Tesh, the Chair of Arts and Philosophy, is a theatre lover and he has bent over backwards to get a professional theatre company to come to this campus. He's been extremely supportive of Trap Door and the efforts we're making to inform people about this campus and the facilities we have to offer the community at large.

How are the today's students different from when you were attending?

Our theatre department is on the brink of a renaissance. This department was very healthy in the late 1980s when I was in college. Barbara Lowery and John Pryor were here, and students came here just to get some time in with them. Now that they have both retired, a new regime is being put in place and we have been charged with recruiting students. I believe we're on the verge of creating something good here again.

You're bringing a professional caliber of theatre onto a college campus; how will this play a factor in the students' education?

We have a number of students who are involved in this production on everything from costumes to marketing. It's kind of like a "side by side" situation. These are not students who are enrolled in a class to get credit, they are just interested in learning more about how professional theatre works. My hope is that they will see what we are doing and create their own work. A student who has been working on Boston Marriage just came to me with two short plays she wants to direct in our Black Box space at the end of April. That makes me feel like she's getting something out of her experience with Trap Door. The spark is being lit.

In costume design, which is more difficult: designing for a play or musical?

I don't perceive one as more difficult than the other. It depends on what the production is, the time period, the sheer volume of costumes involved, among other things. The biggest challenge for me is budget. None of the companies I work for has enough money, lead time or staff to build the ideal show here. In some ways, it makes your creativity rise to the challenge. You have to be incredibly resourceful.

How does a costume designer audition for a job?

I've worked by word of mouth for the last nine years. I was forced to prepare a portfolio for the Miami-Dade position. I am not good about consistently photographing my work and it was really an exercise to go back over more than 100 shows to pick out what represented what I can do. If you can get your foot in the door and do good, honest work for people, your name can get around pretty quickly - especially in the technical aspects of theatre.

You design for other companies plus your own companies. Do your students assist you in your projects?

I had two students assist me with the broom headpieces we built for Bat Boy at the Shores. Melissa and Andrea George aren't even theatre majors, but they are very active in the Drama Department and have a strong interest in fashion in costuming. I brought in all the supplies and they helped to paint, epoxy, and stitch. So I asked that Shores give them credit in the program and they were delighted to see their names in print (I was delighted to have their assistance).

When the show closed, we tore apart the headpieces and screwed the broom heads into their wooden poles and Shores Theatre finally had some push brooms! Other than that, I don't have too many students involved with my outside projects. Mostly because I have to move at a breakneck pace and I don't have the luxury of time to explain and teach as I go.

What is your relationship like with the other companies you design for?

Interesting question. I have a lot of freedom with the companies I work with and they are all so positively inspiring to me because of the type of work they are creating. Richard J. Simon at Mosaic Theatre will give me a general idea about a play and often his take is different from my initial perception. I find that he casts his shows in ways that are surprising to me too. However, once the show is cast, all his concepts begin to make sense and I can see where his vision is going. He makes choices that go against the grain and I think that's why his work has had the attention it's received. With Rich Simone at Shores Theatre, he can just say a simple word or two to me and I totally know his mindset. Rich is so visually oriented and he knows the language of design and we get right to it. Working with Rich has always been an honor because I know if he sewed a little better and had another few hours in the day, he'd do all of his own costuming too! With Summer Shorts, I work with a variety of directors in a short period of time. The most important element is listening to what people say and how they describe what they want and then translating that into look, functionality, purpose and appropriateness.

You're the singer with your own band, is that correct?

Uh, yeah. I sing, write melody lines, and lyrics.

What is the band's name?

Musidora - named after the actress who played the first Irma Vep in silent movies.

Music and theatre are two separate art forms. In your honest opinion, how are they similar?

Well, both are meant to evoke feeling and emotion and thought. I really have come to enjoy the performance part of the band. It's a lot like theatre in that there is a particular tunnel of time in which you travel and create and experience in this collaborative fashion. It's live for just that brief time and then it's gone. I'm not into recording anything ever (for theatre or music) - although it's a necessary piece of what we do. I really enjoy the moment to moment in theatre and in music.

How are they different?

My ties to the music of my band varies. In all honesty, I'm not nearly as dedicated to that as I am to the theatre because there's a different sense of passion about it. Plus, all of my bandmates have careers outside of that project. Music is sort of an ongoing fluid thing, constantly evolving and growing as each of the individuals do within the band. What I do in the theatre is very project oriented - there's this group of people I work with for a certain period of time, we do our thing, accomplish our deadlines, create our work and then it's over. When I create with the band, it's eventually recorded and I can plug it in at any time and listen to it and experience it again. Theatre just isn't anything like that at all. When the show closes, it's over.

If you had to choose between art forms, which would you choose?

Theatre - hands down. Within the theatre, there's all this stuff you can do. I can direct, design, produce, act, even create music for a specific show. Music is much more limiting to me - not just because of the art form, but because of my limited ability within the art form.

With all of your assignments and duties, what do you do to maintain your mental and physical health?

An excellent question which I have been asking myself over the last several months! I am seriously working on this part of my life right now. It's easy to get to a point where all that you're involved in is controlling you and you're not controlling any of it. So, mentally, I am trying to get more alone time so I can just maintain some focus. On the physical side of things, I have lofty goals of doing yoga every single day. However, my reality is that I lug around lots of costumes from place to place, running up and down stairs, moving large boxes in and out of storage. It's surprising to most people just how physical the job of a costume designer can be.

Who are your heroes, your inspirations?

Mostly people no one knows. People who gave me a chance, a word of encouragement along the way; my mentors, people who have been honest even when it was the hardest thing to do. My parents taught me things that have nothing to do with theatre, but have a lot to do with life and people and business. I really admire Oprah Winfrey and what she's done with her incredible life and how she has touched and changed so many people. That's what we're really here for, right? People with the "pay it forward" philosophy inspire me.

Will we ever see you on stage again as an actor?

I really hope so. I miss acting and it's taken a back seat so that I can produce. Producing at the level I do is kind of a thankless job. I could certainly be producing stuff just so I could act in it, but I don't think that's a fair position to be in or to put others around me in. I don't really feel comfortable producing and acting at the same time; it divides my brain in too many places. Right now I'm in the midst of recreating my life to contain all the elements I enjoy. That may mean that I'll step away from as many projects as I've been working on, but I'm very aware that it's essential for getting grounded in one's truth.

Meredith Lasher recently accepted the Theatre League of South Florida's Wilks Award (recognizing female artists over 40) on behalf of the Women's Theatre Project. Their next production will be Eve Ensler's Neccessary Targets, slated for June. She also was nominated three times for a Curtain Up Award for best costume design. She won for Blood Brothers (Shores Theatre). Boston Marriage opened March 3 and runs through the 20th.

See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.

-- Kevin Johnson

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